Saturday, April 10, 2010

The young Ogden Nash

I just took a long stroll to the public library and returned with treasures from the 1930s: the first two Thin Man movies, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and a poetry collection containing the early works of Ogden Nash.

Archibald MacLeish wrote the introduction to the collection and recounted Nash's beginnings as an poet:

In 1930 Mr. Herbert Hoover's Plateau of Permanent Prosperity had collapsed into the Great Depression carrying a generation with it -- most painfully, a generation of the young. Nash was twenty-eight, a failed prep school teacher, a failed bond salesman, and a failed sonneteer, supporting himself, if that is the term, by composing advertising copy for a New York publisher. He was approaching the age at which a young man's commitment to art can no longer survive on hope. After thirty, failure begins to taste of finality and it becomes harder and harder to try again. But as one approaches thirty things have a way of happening. And they did for Ogden Nash in his grubby office on that 1930 afternoon. He found himself -- or, if not precisely himself, then a form of language he could speak. It fell into half a dozen more or less rhymed couplets, which he might well have called (but didn't) "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and it changed his life. It ended the failure, began a considerable literary success and, more astonishing than either, altered -- or began to alter -- the relation of his contemporaries to the time in which they lived:

I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue
And say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?
Why then do you fritter away your time on this doggerel?
If you have a sore throat you can cure it by using a good goggeral...


Ogden Nash's first poetry volume Hard Lines (1931) showed his art fully formed. In addition to his poetic breakthrough quoted above, entitled Spring Comes to Murray Hill, the volume includes the seven arguably best-known words in poetry:


Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker

The volume also includes one of my favorite short Nash poems, a touching poem that Nash wrote in a rare somber vein.


People expect old men to die
They do not really mourn old men
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when...
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.

Here are two characteristically sprightly poems from his volume The Primrose Path (1935). The second poem totally befuddles my computer's spellchecker.


A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.

* * *

There was a brave girl of Connecticut
Who flagged the express with her pecticut,
Which her elders defined
As presence of mind,
But deplorable absence of ecticut.

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